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University of Pretoria rewards students, staff for inventions

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From left: Dr Nthabiseng Taole, director of UP’s Department of Research and Innovation; professor Tawana Kupe, UP vice-chancellor and principal; professors Lise Korsten and Nico Labuschagne; and Mmboneni Muofhe, deputy director-general for innovation at the Department of Science and Technology.
From left: Dr Nthabiseng Taole, director of UP’s Department of Research and Innovation; professor Tawana Kupe, UP vice-chancellor and principal; professors Lise Korsten and Nico Labuschagne; and Mmboneni Muofhe, deputy director-general for innovation at the Department of Science and Technology.

The University of Pretoria (UP) has granted 40% rights to students and staff of the first R1 million of revenue accrued to the university, for their commercially viable inventions.

The university was among the first institutions to establish a Technology Transfer Office (TTO) after the promulgation of the Intellectual Property Rights Act in 2010, and it has since signed over 20 licence agreements with small and medium enterprises.

The Act ensures investment in research at higher education institutions, through government-funded projects, and that the resultant inventions are protected by patents and other forms of intellectual property protection.

It encourages that the inventions be commercialised, and that South Africans benefit from these projects in the form of job creation, business creation and access to the new products.

The Act also compels universities to establish TTOs, which are responsible for screening the invention disclosures made by academic researchers for commercial and/or social benefit, and then deciding on the appropriate form of protection.

UP says its TTO has already been involved in the creation of at least 10 start-up companies that employ more than 200 people, the majority of whom are its graduates. 

According to the university, its TTO processes about 23 invention disclosures per year, and negotiates and drafts more than 250 research agreements.

“Consequently, the TTO has accumulated more than R1 million in royalties that are held in trust. Some of the inventions that were honoured have already received local acclaim and have been recognised with innovation prizes, thereby ensuring their availability for commercial, retail and scientific use.”

Professor Tawana Kupe, UP vice-chancellor and principal, says: “Nationally and internationally, innovation based on scientific and engineering knowledge has become increasingly important for business development and wealth creation.

“Our long-term strategic plan, UP 2025, commits the university to maximise the advantages created by its research outputs, and thereby to supporting economic development and our competitiveness. In order to do so, we need to exploit our intellectual property (IP) by bringing our research outputs to commercial fruition.”

UP has 11 inventors who have been granted a patent for more than one invention, and 50 inventors who have been granted a patent for a single invention. In addition, the university says it has eight inventors whose ideas have achieved registered trademark status.

“At an event hosted by the TTO, all inventors whose patents were granted between 2 August 2010 (the day on which the Intellectual Property Rights Act came into effect) and 30 June 2019, were honoured for their achievements,” says UP.

“Most of the licence agreements benefit the university not only in monetary terms, but they also allow the university to strengthen its knowledge transfer activities. In particular, these licence agreements enable the university to gain new perspectives on possible directions and approaches for research through the transfer of knowledge between the university and industry,” adds UP.

The innovations honoured include: HearZA, a novel hearing screening mobile application; an eco-friendly type of soil that can be used to replace imported peat soil; and the discovery of the anti-cancer activity of Helichrysum odoratissimum, an aromatic herbaceous shrub, commonly known as impepho in IsiZulu. It is one of about 600 species in the genus Helichrysum, 244 species of which are indigenous to Southern Africa.

The plant is reported to have many traditional usages for various ailments and is used culturally for religious purposes.

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